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Lessons from Boris Johnson’s messy exit

By Martins Oloja
10 July 2022   |   3:55 am
The still-developing, very British big story from the United Kingdom has rekindled my interest in the quintessential parliamentary system of government I wrote about here on June 25, 2016.

Boris Johnson (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

The still-developing, very British big story from the United Kingdom has rekindled my interest in the quintessential parliamentary system of government I wrote about here on June 25, 2016. Titled, “Brexit: Bring back our parliamentary system” (https://guardian.ng/opinion/brexit-bring-back-our-parliamentary-system/. The content contrasts with the very Nigerian story of an imperial presidency that has demonised the beauty of our representative democracy, we revived in 1999. This is a time to examine the foundation of the return to our presidential system of government that has crippled the essence of a complex diversity in Africa’s most populous country.

Again, when I witnessed the power and majesty of the parliamentary system of democracy of the British people at the weekend, I began to develop deep hatred for our variant – the very expensive, oppressive, less accountable presidential system of government where even anyone elected remains for the next four years even if he does nothing.

A parliamentary system is a form of government in which the official head of state or entire executive branch has little or no role in actual governing. In a parliamentary system, all decisions of governance are managed by a legislative body. These legislative bodies can take various forms; some are two-chambered parliaments while others are single-chambered. These legislative bodies are usually elected by the people, with a roughly equal number of citizens electing a delegate to represent their opinions and interests in Parliament.

As a result of this reduced status, the de facto head of state in a parliamentary system is often the leader of the legislative body, in many cases, a prime minister. The prime minister usually sets up a cabinet composed of other legislators, often leading members of the prime minister’s own party. These cabinet members are the heads of various departments of the government that take care of the day-to-day affairs of the government.

This is the de facto executive body of the parliamentary system. Thus, both the executive decisions and many of the legislative decisions – depending on the peculiar parliamentary procedures of each nation – are largely made by the same group of people. However, in order to prevent tyranny by the majority, most parliamentary democracies have built-in checks on power, such as term limits for prime ministers and regularly scheduled elections.

The British House of Commons (easily the powerhouse of their parliamentary system) on the other hand, possesses all the power to make laws in the UK. In addition, the head of the party with the most sitting members is considered the prime minister, and he appoints a cabinet of party colleagues, which head various government departments. To prevent abuse, parliament has to be reelected a minimum of every five years. Most other European countries also possess a parliamentary system, whether it’s part of a constitutional monarchy or not. Germany, for example, has a largely symbolic executive body, but it is not an inherited monarchy.

In contrast, a presidential system (Nigeria’s own system borrowed from the United States) is a democratic system of government characterised by separation of powers and checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches. Under the presidential government, voters separately elect the president and the congress (legislature) for fixed terms. The president cannot dissolve the congress, and the congress cannot dismiss the president (unless for misconduct through the process called impeachment). Under this system, the president is the head of state. He or she is also the head of government. The head of government is the official heading the executive branch and making the most important decisions in the country. The president is elected directly by the people and is responsible to them, not to the congress, quite unlike the parliamentary system.

The presidential system of government, which is used in the US and most countries in the Americas, contrasts with the parliamentary system, which is popular in Europe. Under the presidential system, the president has substantial power as a head of government, and their authority and legitimacy derive directly from the people. In contrast to that, under the parliamentary system, people do not elect the head of government directly, but instead vote only for the legislature (in the UK called the Parliament), which appoints the head of government called the prime minister.

The prime minister is not directly responsible to the people, but rather to the parliament, which can dismiss him at any time through the procedure called a vote of no confidence. This does not mean, however, that the prime minister can disregard the people’s will. If their policy becomes unpopular, the prime minister’s party might lose the next parliamentary election, in which event the prime minister will lose their office.

Although the prime minister is not directly elected by the people, they might in fact have more power than the president, their counterpart in the presidential system, because by default, the prime minister enjoys support of the parliamentary majority. Hence, they find it easier to turn their legislative proposals into laws. On the other hand, the US president often faces opposition in the Congress (for example, when the president is a Republican while the congressional majority is Democratic). Nigeria’s system isn’t like this as the Legislature (National Assembly) isn’t so independent. The current leadership of the federal legislature told the nation point blank at a time, “whatever the president brings to the Assembly will be good for the nation.”

Some of the presidential system’s principal characteristics include fixed terms, separation of powers, and president’s veto powers. Both the president and Congress are elected for fixed terms (in the US, the president for four years, the House of Representatives for two years, and senators for six years). In Nigeria, the president is elected for four years and the legislature is also for four years. There is no possibility of an early congressional or presidential election. If the president dies, resigns, or is impeached before the end of their term, the vice-president takes over until the next scheduled election. In Nigeria, the constitution provides for this succession arrangement but most of our legislators from a section of the country may not like the vice president to succeed an incapacitated president even as the constitution so provides. It happened in 2010, which gave birth to a concoction called ‘Doctrine of Necessity,’ which isn’t in our constitution.

And so let’s read through the majesty of parliamentary system, which excites me this weekend: For a leader who led the Conservative Party to an 80-seat majority three years ago with a Thatcher-like charisma, Boris Johnson’s fall from grace was so steep that a host of his Ministers, including those who were appointed days earlier, publicly called for his resignation on last Wednesday. The journalist-turned politician who rose to the pinnacles of power riding the Brexit wave, tried to cling on to his position till the last minute. But despite Downing Street’s fight-back, the intra-party rebellion spread like wildfire, engulfing even the loyalist inner circle. Faced with no other choice, he had to agree last Thursday to stand down as the Conservative Party leader immediately and resign as Prime Minister in October when the party chooses a new leader. But he had to resign on Friday as Prime Minister. His position within the party became untenable in June when 41 per cent of lawmakers expressed no-confidence in his leadership in a vote. Signs of the rebellion had emerged much earlier as his government was rocked by the “party-gate” scandal — the Prime Minister was fined by the police for attending a birthday gathering at Downing Street in the midst of a nation-wide COVID-19 lockdown. The resignation of Chris Pincher as Deputy Chief Whip last week over allegations of sexual misconduct came as the last straw. As anxiety grew to anger and chaos prevailed, two of his senior Ministers — Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid – announced their resignations, triggering the disintegration of the government.

The British media’s verdict was clear on the former Mayor of London City, Johnson who won the 2019 elections promising a quick, orderly Brexit. But the best he could deliver was a chaotic, painful divorce with the EU whose economic pains continue to haunt ordinary Britons and businesses. There is still no clarity on the post-Brexit trade relations with the EU and the Northern Ireland protocol remains a mess. As scandals began to hit his government, his moral authority within the party started slipping. Mr. Johnson could still argue that he got a colossal mandate and that he remained a vote-getter for the Conservatives. But even that position became untenable as a serious economic crunch began to bite. Last month, the Conservatives suffered humiliating defeats in two by-elections — Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton — which practically sealed Mr. Johnson’s fate. The rest was only a matter of time. His successor will inherit a crisis-ridden economy and polity. Inflation rose to 9.1per cent in May, the highest in 40 years, which, according to the Bank of England, could hit 11 per cent this year. Some economists predict a recession. Brexit remains an unfinished business, which, if not resolved properly, could threaten peace in Northern Ireland. And the government in Scotland is demanding another referendum on independence. Mr. Johnson, who came to power offering a new post-Brexit future for the U.K., is leaving the country in economic pain and political disarray.

When I attempted to develop a thesis about the expediency of returning to this remarkable parliamentary system that enables you to be elected first as a parliamentarian before you can become a prime minister and minister I recall how some reasonable elders have always deconstructed the proposition that the trouble is not the presidential system that we adopted from the United States. It is also said that our salvation is not in adopting the parliamentary system. We have a presidential system that should have been practised within a federation of 36 states as federating units as in the U.S. that has a system, culture and character.

The deliverable here is that whether it is a parliamentary or presidential system of government, Nigeria needs a system that people can trust. We haven’t developed a political culture that can nurture any democratic system. And worst still, we haven’t got a political class that has the characters such as David Cameron who bowed out majestically in 2016 when the Brexit storm was too much for him. We also do not have a Boris Johnson who could say, “…But as we’ve seen, at the Westminster the herd instinct is very powerful and when the herd moves, it moves, and, my friends in politics, no one is remotely indispensable…”

Despite all the oddities, the lesson from their once Great Britain this week is that we should return to the debate on the expediency of the parliamentary system because it is more efficient in its unified executive and parliamentary model that leads to accountability every day in parliament with the executive head facing opposition that daily puts it on its toes. And given our experience with an imperial presidency, we should like a system, which provides that the Prime Minister/Chancellor can be easily replaced if confidence is lost as it happened to PM Johnson last week. Verily, verily, our presidential system is too expensive and corruptible: we can’t afford it if we must lead the black race.